PASSENGER RAIL HELPS EVACUATE HOUSTON
For Immediate Release
Tuesday, September 27, 2005 - #05-30
Washington--Two passenger trains enabled over 700 evacuees to avoid gridlocked Interstates before Hurricane Rita. Given the limited availability of passenger rail in Texas, the fact that so many people could take the train gives a tantalizing suggestion about rail evacuation possibilities where intercity passenger and commuter rail systems are well developed, and where rail systems of any size are integrated into evacuation planning.
On Thursday afternoon, September 22, two trains departed Amtrak's Houston station. Amtrak took 298 evacuees to San Antonio, while Trinity Railway Express (the Dallas-Fort Worth commuter railroad) took 440 to Dallas. Seating capacity for the two trains was 400 and 750, respectively. Both trains loaded quickly and without incident; all luggage was accommodated.
The San Antonio train left Houston at 12:58 PM with intercity cars, including a cafe car fully stocked with bottled water and individually packaged snacks. The train, operating on Union Pacific tracks, reached Amtrak's San Antonio station at 6:35 PM.
The train to Dallas left Houston at 2:53 PM. It used BNSF (former Rock Island) tracks, and made a food stop at Teague, Texas. Running-time was 12 hours, including food stop and stops to flag highway crossings near Houston, where protective devices had been removed so the hurricane would not damage them. (Some motorists took 20 hours to make the trip that day; others abandoned their evacuation as they ran out of gas or decided it was futile to continue.) Amtrak kept its Dallas station open for the early-Friday-morning arrival; Amtrak, TRE and American Red Cross staff met the train there and assisted the arriving passengers in reaching the Reunion Arena shelter.
Houston Metro handled transportation coordination in Houston, searching transit-dependent neighborhoods for people who needed the train, and bringing evacuees to Amtrak's Houston station. John Bertini, a physician and NARP member who helped load both trains, said many passengers were confined to wheel chairs; some also had oxygen tanks. He told NARP that "many passengers complimented the cool spacious cars," adding his own view as a physician that the "roominess, comfort and relative speed the trains afforded these folks makes rail an ideal means to evacuate."
Bertini is board chairman of Galveston Island Railroad Museum & Terminal. Drawing on that organization's experience with the Amtrak-run Texas GulfLiner, which was funded by a federal feasibility grant, Bertini assembled a team of volunteers to help load passengers at Houston. These volunteers had experience with evacuation procedures two years ago when the GulfLiner helped evacuate Galveston during a tropical storm. (The GulfLiner ran from Galveston to Houston on several holiday weekends starting in 2002, and was aimed at developing support for regular rail service there. Incidentally, the initial request last week to TRE from Gov. Perry's Office of Emergency Management was for a train to help evacuate Galveston; the train initially went to Galveston but turned out not to be needed.)
On September 3, Amtrak took 97 Katrina evacuees from New Orleans to Lafayette, LA, where passengers boarded Houston Metro buses to various Texas locations. Amtrak had prepared a New Orleans-Lafayette shuttle service at FEMA's request, but the effort was called off after one run because Texas was no longer accepting evacuees. Amtrak carried more passengers than usual out of New Orleans before the storm, and offered to carry evacuees on a special train from New Orleans to McComb, MS, that ran Saturday night, August 27, to move Amtrak's equipment to high ground.
In the aftermath of these hurricanes, public officials need to consider relying more heavily on passenger rail for evacuations. Realizing rail's potential means developing plans so that railroad and public officials don't have to ad lib every decision, and so that available equipment can handle as many passengers as possible. It also means improving communications between railroads and public officials, and developing satisfactory liability arrangements. Finally, the U.S. needs a useable, standby fleet of cars. Until about 1970, a large, reserve fleet of older intercity passenger cars was available for use during holiday peak loads, and for emergencies. Such a fleet no longer exists, although the growing commuter rail fleet is a plus.
Regular Amtrak Houston service is three weekly departures west to Los Angeles and three east to New Orleans and Orlando, plus daily Thruway buses connecting at Longview, TX, with Amtrak's Texas Eagle to and from Chicago-St. Louis. However, since Hurricane Katrina, Amtrak's Los Angeles-Houston-Orlando train has not operated east of San Antonio. Some of the railroad east of New Orleans was severely damaged; news reports indicate that CSX expects the line to be rebuilt within 90 days.
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